Adriaen Brouwer was one of the most expressive artists of the 17th century. His great contribution to genre painting was to give a face to the peasant, to infuse his images of these lower-class individuals with recognizable and vividly expressed human emotions—anger, joy, pain, and pleasure. Even the satirical and mocking gesture of Youth Making a Face is that of a real person, however uninviting he may be. Brouwer's vigorous handling of paint, with his characteristically short, unmodulated brushstrokes, heightens this small painting's dramatic impact.
The uncouth youth in this painting confronts us with a recognizable yet thoroughly unexpected gesture. Packed with an energy that far exceeds its scale, Brouwer's unidealized depiction of this Flemish rustic is an excellent example of 17th-century realism. Yet, as evident in the youth's aggressive gesture, this slice-of-life image also offers a visual critique of rural behavior and mores. Brouwer's unsentimental view of the peasant is rooted in a long tradition of urban disdain for rural life. The physiognomy, humor, and moralizing tenor of Brouwer's peasants all derive from the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525/1530–1569), who depicted the excessive behavior of peasants at their village kermesses (fairs), weddings, and dances as moral warnings to city viewers. As with Bruegel, Brouwer's scenes of fighting, drinking, and sleeping warn about the consequences of gluttony and wrath (ira), intemperance (gula), and sloth (desidia). Indeed, Brouwer used the peasant's proverbial uncouthness to create comic images both to delight the viewers and instruct them about proper behavior.
The mocking gesture could well be witnessed in any 17th-century tavern, but its tradition reaches back to depictions of Christ appearing before Pilate: "...the men that held Jesus mocked him, and smote him" (Luke 22:63). The youth's unkempt hair, chin stubble, and knife stuck through his fur hat aim to elicit a surprised, if not horrified, response from the viewer. With Youth Making a Face, Brouwer created an image that exposes human folly and forces the viewer, regardless of status, to confront a threatening and mocking world. Brouwer does not pretend to help us with this world; he only warns us of its existence and the fact that its disquieting face can appear at unexpected times. The youth's gesture also reminds us, whether through our laughter or outrage, of the all-too-human nature of his character.
Although the broad outlines of Brower's life are well established, surprisingly little is known about his activities beyond his membership in rhetoricians' chambers (literary and dramatic societies) in Haarlem and Antwerp. Seventeenth- and 18th-century critics greatly praised his work, particularly its humor and truthfulness to nature. Despite Brouwer's reputation as a "learned painter," his keen observation and biting wit suggest that he actually cultivated a "vulgar painter" persona, and numerous anecdotes indicate that he led a colorful existence. Only about 60 of Brouwer's paintings are known; almost all are scenes of peasants in taverns or hovels.
Everhard Jabach [1610-1695], Paris. Possibly Nicolaus Hudtwalcker [1791-1863], Hamburg, by 1863. (Nathan Katz, The Hague and Dieren); (his sale, Galerie Charpentier, Paris, 12 July 1950, no. 9). (Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Amsterdam). W. Reineke, Amersfoort, by 1962. Private collection, The Netherlands, by 1982; (Noortman Ltd., London and Maastricht); purchased 9 June 1994 by NGA.
- Hundert Seltene Höllander, Galerie Dr. Schäfer, Berlin, 1932, no. 16.
- Hundert Seltene Holländer, Galerie Dr. Schäffer, Berlin, 1932, no. 16, as Bauer, eine Grimmasse schneidend.
- Adriaen Brouwer/David Teniers the Younger. A Loan Exhibition of Paintings, Noortman & Brod, New York; Noortman & Brod, Maastricht, The Netherlands, 1982, no. 7, color repro., as Boy pulling faces.
- Adriaen Brouwer: Youth Making a Face, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1995-1996, unnumbered brochure, color repro. on cover.
- A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 8, fig. 16.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Small Treasures: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Their Contemporaries, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Birmingham Museum of Art, 2014-2015, no. 7, repro.
- Parthey, Gustav Friedrich. Deutscher Bildersaal. Verzeichniss der in Deutschland vorhandenen Oelbilder verstorbener Maler aller Schulen. 2 vols. Berlin, 1863-1864: 1(1863):208 (possibly the NGA painting).
- Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 3(1910):657, no. 222j (possibly).
- Knuttel, Gerard (Gerhardus). Adriaen Brouwer. The Master and His Work. The Hague, 1962: 152, pl. 103.
- Robert Noortman Gallery. Dutch and Flemish Old Master Paintings. Maastricht and London, 1993: no. 6, color repro.
- Sutton, Peter C., and Marjorie E. Wieseman, et al. The Age of Rubens. Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art. Boston, 1993: 62, repro.
- Richard, Paul. "Small Wonders: At the National Gallery, Some Tiny Dutch Treats." Washington Post (September 23, 1995): C1-2, repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 65, no. 8.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 10-13, color repro.
- Tummers, Anna. The Eye of the Connoisseur: Authenticating Paintings by Rembrandt and His Contemporaries. Amsterdam, 2012: 156, color fig. 98.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Clouds, ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2020: 31, 32, fig. 16.